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Scuba diving is a fantastic and popular hobby. No other activity lets you get close to marine wildlife the way scuba diving does, and it helps you make memories like no other. It’s fun, relatively quick and easy to learn and calming.
But is scuba diving safe? Much like air travel, you are far more likely to get seriously hurt on the drive to the water than when you are diving in it. However, scuba diving does take place in an environment that our bodies are not developed to survive in.
Scuba diving certifications require a lot of safety training, and diving instructors go through hundreds of hours of instruction to learn how to keep divers safe, but that does not mean that the dangers are not there. Underwater, many things can and will go wrong if you are careless and do not perform the proper safety precautions. These varied dangers go beyond just simple drowning, and understanding of these many threats can ensure that you have a long an incident free diving career.
What is Scuba Diving?
To find out whether or not scuba diving is safe, you must first understand how scuba diving is done. If you know the scuba diving basics, you will see how it can be dangerous, and the precautions will make more sense and be more intuitive. It’s more than just swimming deep into the water.
Perhaps you have noticed that when you fly in an airplane or swim to the bottom of the deep end in a pool. Your ears “pop” or you feel pressure on them. This change in pressure is due either to less air pressing down on you or more water pressing down on you. As you read this (assuming you aren’t underwater), the Earth’s atmosphere is crashing down on your body. Your body is under the weight of about a ton of air.
But, as you may have noticed, you are not a puddle of human compressed by air. This is because the air inside you is pressing outward and evening everything out. The deeper into the water you go, the more matter is pressing down on you, so you need more air inside you.
Maintaining your internal pressure is a large part of scuba diving. You don’t just hop into the water and dive straight down. You must slowly descend, equalizing pressure as you go. There are many techniques and procedures to follow that help this equalization process.
Scuba divers wear tanks of air so they can breathe underwater, as most people know. But breathing water underwater is not the same as breathing air on the surface. The deeper you go, the more pressure your body is under as we have discussed. The higher the pressure, the more oxygen, and nitrogen your body absorbs. Practicing good diving safety involves regulating how much gas is absorbed into your body and the rate at which it is released.
Scuba diving is not like being in a submarine. Your body is exposed to the ocean with little more than a wetsuit to protect you, and sometimes not even that. Usually, this is not a problem as there are many environments where a wetsuit is not needed.
But just like on land, the ocean is filled with animals, plants and the places they call home. And, also like on land, some of these plants and animals can be dangerous, and many do not appreciate it when some land animal encroaches to close into their personal space.
The Dangers of Scuba Diving
There are many possible dangers associated with scuba diving. Most of them are associated with the conditions mentioned above. While there are other, less common risks, listed here are some of the most common maladies and incidents that might occur.
A Diving Accident
As with any hobby that employs a large amount of equipment and movement like skiing or biking, there is always the risk of an accident. Bumps on the head or crushed fingers are not unheard of on dive boats with heavy air tanks rolling around. And once you are in the water, especially if the dive site is crowded, boats themselves become a risk factor for injury or even death. Boat propellers are not to be taken lightly.
Luckily, these incidents are almost always due to human error. Lucky because caution and alertness can almost eliminate these risks. If the divers pay attention to what they are doing, and the boat captains are trained and alert, accidents like these should not happen.
One of the most well-known diver specific maladies is the bends. Also known as decompression sickness, this affliction occurs when a diver ascends too quickly. While under a lot of water pressure, as noted above, your body absorbs an abnormal amount of gas into its tissues.
As you rise, and pressure decreases that gas, mostly nitrogen, begins to escape these tissues. If this process is gradual, nothing untoward will happen to you.
However, if this reduction in pressure is quick and drastic, the gas in your body will expand and bubble like carbonated water. As you may have guessed, gas bubbles in your body tissues are not good for you. It can rupture blood vessels giving you a rash or a headache, but that is just the lightest of possible outcomes. More serious cases of the bends can result in muscle and joint aches, paralysis and even death.
Not only can ascending to the surface cause decompression sickness but flying too soon after diving can as well. As you rise above the air, less of it is pressing on your body, and the air pressure around you falls. This drop in pressure is not so different from coming up from deep water and can cause the bends just as surely.
Standard diving procedures require a “safety stop” during an ascent to give gas a chance to escape the body, and ascension rates are strictly enforced. Many different organizations have different recommendations on how long you should wait before flying after diving but the Divers Alert Network (DAN), “the diving industry’s largest association dedicated to scuba diving safety,” recommends a 12-hour minimum wait. Others recommend up to 24 hours depending on depth and duration of dives.
More gas is absorbed into the blood because of high pressures isn’t that big of a problem at average depths. But the deeper you go; the more oxygen and nitrogen can get into your system. These two gases are vital to your survival on the surface, but too much of a good thing can be bad for you.
Excess oxygen in the blood can cause oxygen toxicity. It’s a lot like hyperventilating, only worse. Symptoms include tunnel vision, nausea, muscle spasms, loss of consciousness and seizures. It should go without saying that you don’t want any of these happening to you underwater.
Too much nitrogen in your system can cause nitrogen narcosis. You may have felt this already if you have ever gotten nitrous oxide or “laughing gas” at the dentist. All that nitrogen makes you giddy and shatters your focus and judgment; two things that are of vital importance when surrounded by water.
Both of these conditions are known to kill, but the good news is that they do not occur unless the diver is quite deep. How deep can you scuba dive before this becomes a problem? After 130 feet, far below recreational diving depths, these conditions become a serious risk. Extended dives at more shallow depths do rarely cause these conditions with some divers, however.
When your plane lands or when you reach the surface of the swimming pool, you may have noticed that your ears hurt a bit. This is because the air cavities in your body are rapidly expanding and contracting. Normally this only causes discomfort, but if the change is too rapid, serious injury can occur.
As pressure increases, the air in your lungs, ears and other cavities compresses and becomes denser. As pressure decreases, the air expands. Rapid expansion can cause your lungs to balloon up and even burst. Fortunately, this condition is also prevented by controlled ascents.
Wandering around in the forest or jungle puts you at risk of animal attacks or stumbling onto something poisonous. A coral reef is no different. There are many animals who want nothing more than to mind their own business and live their lives but if an overly curious diver gets too close, they might defend themselves from what they see as a threat. Most animals ignore or avoid divers, but there’s a few that don’t and can be dangerous; always ask the divemaster about dangerous local wildlife.
Rules for a Reason
All of these dangers are well known and documented by scuba divers. As bad as they sound, your dive instructor knows all about them and now so do you. Following all of the safety procedures and taking the necessary precautions will ensure that diving is a safe and fun hobby no more dangerous than other activities that involve risk. Is scuba diving safe? That’s up to you.